Harold Tivol’s story, in his own words

The Tivol Century commercial

Harold E. Tivol, whose beaming countenance represented Tivol jewelry to decades of Kansas City area shoppers, died early Wednesday morning at his home. He was 92. He appeared in this commercial marking the store's 100 years in business.
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Harold E. Tivol, whose beaming countenance represented Tivol jewelry to decades of Kansas City area shoppers, died early Wednesday morning at his home. He was 92. He appeared in this commercial marking the store's 100 years in business.

This feature-length Q&A with Harold Tivol, who died Wednesday, originally ran in Star Magazine Sept. 5, 2010, the year the company celebrated its 100th anniversary.

Harold Tivol is the face, thanks to a highly popular TV and billboard ad campaign, of his family’s jewelry stores. He has sold the company to his daughter Cathy, but he still works for the firm as chairman.

This conversation — about the company’s history, black diamonds, blood diamonds, his wife and daughter’s influence on the company, recent seismic changes in the jewelry industry and his celebrity status as a result of his TV commercials — took place at Tivol’s flagship store on the Country Club Plaza.

Q: Your company turns 100 this year (2010) …

A: Before we get started, may I make one request?


Will you make sure your photographer doesn’t make me look bald? I’m always told the photographer I’m working with is so talented, and then they make me look bald. If you look very closely, you can see I do have some hair.

I’ll see what I can do.

Thank you (grins).

Q: You’ve been with Tivol for much of its 100-year history. How many years, exactly?

A: Not a lot. Just 64.

What was Tivol like 64 years ago?

A lot smaller. We had one little tiny office on the third floor of the Altman Building at 11th and Walnut in Petticoat Lane. Woolf Brothers, Harzfeld’s — all the top stores were there. My father was a bench jeweler. He made jewelry and set diamonds. He opened the place as a trade shop, and he did work for other jewelers. Because most jewelers, even today, don’t have shops like we have.

Q: When did you come into the business?

A: In 1946, after the war.

Q: What did you do in the war?

A: I saved democracy.

Q: How?

A: That’s a secret (laughs).

Q: Can you divulge which branch of the service you were in?

A: Yes. I was in the Army Air Corps. There isn’t one now, but there was when I was a youngster. I was in what they called “limited service.” I had bad eyes.

Q: What country were you in?

A: The country of Nebraska. It’s a wonderful country.

Q: So after saving democracy, you joined the family business.

A: Yes. I knew I was going to be a jeweler because I had studied gemology by correspondence courses while I was still at Southwest High. Then I was drafted, and when I came out, I went to work for my dad. And I went back to college. I was probably one of the worst students in the history of the University of Illinois. I stayed there one semester, then I quit and went to California to study at a gemology school in Los Angeles.

Q: Was southern California as wonderful as Nebraska?

A: Oh, yes. That’s where my wife, Ruthie, and I spend our winters, in Palm Springs. It’s lovely, and it’s warm in the winter. We have a home there.

Q: So you studied gemology in Los Angeles.

A: Yes. I learned a great deal there. I also took a course by the Gemological Association of Great Britain, because I wanted to be one of the first people in America to have that, and I was.

Q: When you started working for your dad, did you suggest any changes to the business?

A: After three or four years, I told him we better go downstairs. Being upstairs, you’re not going to get a lot of traffic. You had to know to go up this rickety old metal elevator.

Q: So clients were word-of-mouth referrals only.

A: Yes. Among the few people who managed to find their way upstairs was a couple named Harry and Bess.

Q: The Trumans.

A: Yes. Once, they had been in South America and were given some aquamarines by the president of Brazil, and they brought them back and my father made a ring and earrings out of them.

Q: Aquamarines are so beautiful.

A: If you don’t take too long today, I’ll sell you one.

Q: Did it take much convincing to get your father to move downstairs?

A: Not at all. He did whatever I suggested. He knew he was not a businessman. He was a great jeweler, great with his hands. He tried to teach me, but I was helpless.

So I started looking around downtown at properties. Downtown was still viable then. I found a little shop on 11th Street, right next to Woolf Brothers. It was about 10 feet wide. We agreed on a rent, but then the owner told me I had to pay him a percentage of our sales.

Q: What?

A: That’s what I said. I didn’t know what he was talking about. The owner said, “You’ll probably do very well here because it’s a first-class space, so because of that we have to share in your profits.” He wanted 5 percent of our volume.

I told him I had two partners, my brother-in-law and my father, and there were only so many ways we could cut that pie. He said if I didn’t pay a percentage, I couldn’t have the store, so I thanked him for his trouble and found a space on the Plaza, a small part of the building we are in today.

Q: No percentage?

A: The guy I dealt with after J.C. Nichols had retired brought up the matter of a percentage, but I said, “Everyone thinks a jewelry store makes a lot of money because you make big sales. But the bigger the sale, the smaller the margin gets.

“I would love to be on the Plaza, and I will build you a store you’ll be proud of, but I won’t pay a percentage. And if I have to add on, I expect to get additional space with no percentage.” He agreed, and we opened up.

Q: What was it like?

A: It was a fabulous little store next to a popcorn stand —Topsy’s.

How many employees did you have?

My mother — she drew no salary. Me. And a watchmaker from Switzerland. Not a jeweler, because my father was still downtown, and I sent things to him. The first year, I did $105,000 volume and I made money.

Q: You must have kept the overhead low.

A: I got $5,000 a year, my mother got nothing, my watchmaker got $5,000 a year and that was it. I worked seven days a week.

Every time I tell that story of our first year, I’m reminded of a day probably 25 years later. It was an ice-cold winter day in January, big snowstorm, freezing. And a couple walks in from Great Bend, Kan., and they bought two rings from me for a little over $100,000. When they left, I sat back and thought, in five minutes I made as much as I did in a year when I opened the Plaza store.

Q: Tivol is still a family company today.

A: Yes, my daughter Cathy owns it. My son left the business to start his own company with an associate. He’s very smart. He’s a gemologist, knows the business backwards and forwards but didn’t like the way we run a business. When he left, we had to buy him out and my daughter became the owner.

Q: Has your wife, Ruthie, had any influence?

A: Huge. Not just on me and my store but on the national jewelry industry.

Q: How so?

A: I’ll tell you, but you have to promise not to tell anybody.

Q: No, sorry.

A: My sister and my brother-in-law were my partners, and one of their sons worked for us and my son and my daughter were in the store. After a while, as is typical in family businesses, it did not work.

Q: I can only imagine.

A: They all wanted to be president. So I bought out my sister and brother-in-law, and then Ruthie suggested she come to work for me. I told her she didn’t know anything about jewelry, and she said, “I can find out.”

Q: How did that work out?

A: On her first day, mind you, she comes in and she’s looking at our advertising. At the time, we carried the finest line of 18-karat gold jewelry made in America, Henry Dunay. She had a lot of it because I spoiled her rotten.

Q: Good for you.

A: No, it wasn’t. It was wrong. I’m broke now, and I wouldn’t be if it weren’t for all that jewelry (laughs). Anyway, she comes in and says, “I notice when you are advertising the Henry Dunay, you don’t use his name.” I said, “Of course not!” She said, “Why not?” I said, “Honey, you’ve been in this store one day and you’re telling me how to operate the store? I’ve been in this business 40 years, and I think I know what I’m doing. A jeweler doesn’t sell something under someone else’s name. I’m selling Tivol (bangs the desk with his fist) jewelry. Every fine jeweler does the same thing — Tiffany, everybody.” So she says, “Well, you’re making a mistake.”

Q: It looks like she was right.

A: No kidding. Her argument that convinced me was, “Honey, when I buy a Chanel suit, I don’t buy a Woolf Brothers or a Harzfeld’s. I buy the name Chanel.” It sounded reasonable, so I started advertising that way. She single-handedly changed the entire industry by being first to sell jewelry by brand name.

Q: When was that?

A: Around 1979 or ’80. My friends in the industry called me up from all over the country and said, “Are you crazy?” and I said, “No, I’m not crazy. But you’ll be crazy if you don’t start using designers’ names.” Now all fine jewelers do, including Tiffany. And I had nothing to do with it. It was all Ruthie.

Q: Did she persuade you to change the business in other ways?

A: Yeah. Yeah. She made me go to Europe every year, to Basel, Switzerland. That was the biggest jewelry show at the time; now it’s in Vegas. And every top jeweler from Italy, Germany, France was showing there, and we bought merchandise I’d never seen before.

A couple of years later, she made me go to Asia. We went to Bangkok first, and I was a big lover of colored stones — I would buy sapphires, rubies, amethysts there. And then we went to Hong Kong, and we met a very fine manufacturer of jewelry at very low prices. We showed them the kind of things we wanted, and they could duplicate them. But you have to watch them.

Q: Why?

A: Because they always want to add a little curlicue here and a little something over there.

Q: Asian jewelry is more ornate.

A: Exactly. So we had to teach them, but they did beautiful work. And the pearls. We sold a lot of cultured pearls — I presume you know what that is.

Q: You may presume too much.

A: It’s where you take a bead and insert it into the mollusk. It acts as an irritant. Then the oyster begins to secrete nacre to cover it. The more layers of nacre, the more beautiful the pearl becomes.

If you cut through a cultured pearl, it looks like an orange with a thick rind. The rind on the outside is the real pearl and the inside is a bead. If you want an 8mm pearl, you put a 6mm bead in the oyster. Then you have 2mm of pearl. Poor quality pearls only have a very thin, weak coating, and after a number of years, that will disappear. Because acids in the skin attack the pearl.

Q: Are natural pearls, which are all pearl except for a tiny grain of sand, more valuable than cultured pearls?

A: Natural pearls, or Oriental pearls as they are called, are a nonentity today. Think about this: To get a nice strand of 8mm cultured pearls, that’s easy because you can make them yourself. You have thousands of mollusks and you put 6mm beads in as many as you want.

To make a strand of 8mm Oriental pearls, you have to dive over and over again into the water and bring in thousands of oysters and open them, and that might get you enough for one necklace of 50 pearls that match — maybe. So you can imagine the cost of doing that. Once cultured pearls came in, that was the end of Oriental pearls.

Q: How can consumers tell a good cultured pearl from a bad one?

A: You just have to look with your eyes. My dad was an expert at it, and I am, too. Luster is the most important thing. That is the only reason you should buy a pearl.

Q: How can consumers judge the quality of diamonds?

A: Diamonds come with a certificate. That’s what it’s called, but it’s a bad word. It’s actually a ratings card that gives a grade for color, clarity and cut of a diamond. The Gemological Institute of America issues these reports on diamonds, and I fight with them all the time. They know my name very well.

Q: Why?

A: I fought with them for 20 years to put a cut grade on diamond certificates, because the cut is the most important thing about a diamond. They wouldn’t do it for the longest time, but finally they added it, maybe 10 years ago. In a magazine article, the president of the institute said something like, “A lot of jewelers have been after us, particularly one feisty little guy named Harold Tivol in Kansas City.”

Q: So you can judge a diamond based on its certificate?

A: Almost, if you understand all the words. But you can also tell by looking. Brilliance is the most important thing. That’s why black diamonds to me are an oxymoron, but they are quite popular right now.

Q: Why are they an oxymoron?

A: Because they are totally black in color. The one and only reason diamonds are the most beautiful gem in the world is because of their brilliance. How do they get brilliance? By light entering the diamond and refracting from one side to the other and coming out the eye — if it is properly cut. A black diamond is opaque. You can’t get brilliance. But we’ve got them, and we’re selling them (laughs).

Q: In what form do people buy black diamonds?

A: Long chains, especially multiple ones. And they are pretty. Even though there is no brilliance, you get reflected lighted because they are still diamonds. Diamonds are the hardest mineral in the world by far. Nothing else even comes close. And the black diamond chains are not expensive.

Q: How not expensive?

A: Well, not expensive compared to other things in my store. They are two or three or four thousand dollars. A diamond necklace is $100,000 or more.

Q: Diamonds have been in the news a lot recently.

A: Oh, man. Those blood diamonds.

Q: Are you picky about where your diamonds come from?

A: Oh, yes. We have an agreement with our importer that no diamonds come from those countries where terrible things are going on.

Q: Where do most of your diamonds come from originally?

A: South Africa. Except for the yellow ones —they used to call them canary diamonds. A lot of them come from a new mine in Australia called the Argyle mine. In my opinion, that is the biggest hoax ever pulled on the American people.

Q: What is?

A: Yellow diamonds.

Q: Why?

A: Because they’re ugly. Once they get a little bit dirty, they look horrible. Horrible. If you saw one lying on the ground that had already been worn a few times, you wouldn’t pick it up. It would look like a pebble to you.

Q: Are there trends in which classic diamond shapes are popular from year to year?

A: Round has always remained No. 1.

Most people think the more carats, the better a diamond is.

That’s wrong. If you take a rough (an uncut stone) that should yield one carat and you make a carat-and-a-quarter diamond out of it, it will be inferior.

Q: Why?

A: This (begins to sketch on a piece of paper) is the side view of a diamond. This part on top is the crown. If you try to get too much yield, the crown will not be tall enough to properly refract the light. This part is the pavilion (cone-shaped bottom part). The light coming in hits the pavilion. When it is bounced back up through the table, the big center facet on top, it remains white light.

A poorly cut diamond with a low crown has very few bezel facets. The bezel facets on the crown act like prisms. They are what give you the flashes of color: orange, red, green, pink and so forth. If a jeweler cuts a diamond with a very thin crown, that diamond won’t have the brilliant flashes of color, which is what you want.

Q: So bigger isn’t always better?

A: It’s almost always worse.

Q: So judging an engagement ring by carat weight is not smart.

A: It’s the biggest mistake in the world. The 1-carat, 2-carat rings are usually badly cut and lose a lot of light. Add to that, the price really jumps when you go from a .9-carat to a 1-carat just because the market allows it — it’s what people think they want. Go for the smaller diamond with the best cut. It will have the most beauty and bring you the most joy.

Q: How do you feel about Cathy taking over the company?

A: I feel extremely good about it. She’s doing a terrific job — far better than I ever expected, because she had never learned the business the way I did, from the bottom up, watching my father work on diamonds every day. But I could retire right now and be very comfortable that she could run the store perfectly. She’s doing a better job than I did.

Q: In what way?

A: She’s more careful. She watches what she’s doing with stones. Especially during a recession, she’s careful not to overspend, which is a problem I used to have. If I saw an emerald and I loved it, even if I already had an emerald similar to it, I wouldn’t care, I’d buy it. It’s a stupid thing to do.

Q: It’s passion.

A: It’s passion, but it’s dumb. That’s not the way you make money. You don’t duplicate your inventory.

Q: What is your job title now?

A: They let me be chairman.

Q: Why aren’t you retired?

A: I need the money. You haven’t met Ruthie. You think a Mercedes costs nothing (laughs)?

Q: Does retirement sound appealing to you?

A: No, it does not (smiles). I will never retire. My father never retired. He died very young, at 74. I’ll be 87 Sept. 28 (2010). I expect to still be working at 90, if I live long enough. I’ve had open-heart surgery, so I might not, but the doctors seem to think I will.

Q: You look very fit. What is the secret to living so long?

A: Exercise. I work out three days a week with a trainer. My wife does, too. She does even more —she also practices yoga three days a week.

Q: What do you eat?

A: I eat mostly healthy foods. I eat almost no meat. I’m a lover of fish. Sushi is my No. 1 favorite food.

Q: Are there any unhealthy foods you have to have every now and then?

A: I love chocolate, but when I got out of my heart surgery — five bypasses, the maximum — they gave me a list of things I should eat, and dark chocolate was on there.

Q: What is your vision for the future of Tivol?

A: That’s a difficult question because the jewelry industry has changed tremendously in the last three or four years. The price of diamonds has gone out of sight. Gold has gone out of sight. Platinum has gone out of sight. The price of gold is $1,200 an ounce. Think about that.

Q: How has that price pressure affected the business?

A: People can’t afford the real stuff. So we have to sell sterling. My father never sold sterling. He’d be spinning in his grave if he saw our store today. You’ve heard of David Yurman, the famous silver designer. We’ve known him since he started. We do a million dollars a year with him. Even though four or five stores have him. Silver jewelry (shakes his head) ...

Q: My mother has always had a bias against sterling — she thinks real jewelry is 18-carat gold or platinum.

A: Your mother is right. Gold and platinum are real jewelry. That’s what my father said, too. If he saw diamonds set in sterling (shakes his head) — he wouldn’t even set diamonds in white gold. Only platinum.

But let me tell you a story — don’t worry, I can have you out of here by Saturday (smiles). Probably the best jewelry designer in America is Michael Bondanza. He is a genius. He was a workman for Cartier, and he decided to go out on his own and start making silver jewelry. And I didn’t want to look at it because at the time I didn’t buy silver jewelry. And my wife looked at it, and she loved it and she bought it.

Two or three years later we were in New York, and Bondanza was showing and Ruthie wanted me to come with her. And I said, “Honey, you’ve been doing a good job, just go and buy whatever you want in silver, I’m not interested.” Then she told me he was doing platinum, and I said, “Platinum? Let me take a look.”

Q: What did he have?

A: That was an experience I’ll never forget. He had a little showcase, and in it he had four bracelets, combinations of platinum and 18-carat gold and diamonds and colored diamonds. He took them out of the case and I said, “I’ll take them.” And he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Are they for sale?” And he said, “Of course they’re for sale. But you didn’t ask me the price.” And I said, “I don’t care. I’ve never seen jewelry like this.” And I haven’t, and nobody has. He does things in platinum that nobody has ever done before.

Q: Like what?

A: Gosh, I should have brought a couple of my wife’s bracelets to show you (starts sketching again). He’ll make a bracelet out of platinum oval tubes with an 18-carat gold frame, and here and there are onyx stones, and where they are set, there are no prongs, no bezels, nothing. It looks like it is just lying there — impossible. He drills two little holes in the stone then cuts little holes in the tubing and runs a tiny wire through the tubing and through the stone to hold it. Do you know how much work that is? I had one made just for my wife that’s called the Ruthie bracelet.

Q: How much would a bracelet like that cost today?

Over a hundred (thousand).

Q: Has jewelry itself changed in response to the price pressures?

A: Yes. We used to sell heavy gold chains — gorgeous things by Henry Dunay, who was one of the best designers in America. His stuff was all very heavy. That’s over. A necklace that cost $10,000 new you could probably melt for $25,000 today. It’s sad in a way.

Q: So what is being made today?

A: Sterling. And lighter gold chains, lighter earrings.

Q: What are some other new developments?

A: You are seeing jewelry made in ways that are not quite so expensive, using materials that are not quite so expensive. Today in men’s wedding bands, we are using titanium and cobalt.

Q: How do you feel about that?

A: It makes me sick. How else would I feel?

Q: Why?

A: That’s not jewelry. Jewelry is platinum and gold. Titanium? Gimme a break. Although, look (points to his watch). This is a Patek-Philippe, the world’s finest watch. But it’s stainless steel. Steel. Nine thousand dollars for that watch. It’s insane.

Q: Why are you wearing a steel watch instead of platinum?

A: Platinum I wouldn’t pay for. Who can afford it?

Q: Looking back over your 64 years with this company, what are some of your favorite memories?

(Leans back, looks off into space.) Ah, I’ve got so many interesting memories — stones that I’ve owned.

Q: What are some of the stones you’ve owned that stand out?

A: One was a magnificent pink marquee diamond. Fascinating. And there was a pale blue pear-shaped diamond that was flawless. Ahh. I seldom sell my most important stones.

Q: Have you ever had celebrities in the store?

A: All the time, if you count football players and baseball players. One Saturday afternoon last month, José Guillen spent the whole afternoon with us. Nicest young man. Making $12 million a year, and just a kid. It’s fascinating to watch what they buy. They don’t understand them, but they buy expensive watches, big diamonds, things like that. Showy.

Q: Speaking of celebrities, what is it like for you when you’re driving down I-35 and you see your face on a giant billboard?

A: I like it. And the ads work. It’s brought us business.

Q: It’s a brilliant campaign. Who realized that you were so photogenic?

A: John Muller of Muller + Co. here in Kansas City. He made enough money off me that he sold the company (laughs). But I never would have allowed my face to be used. Ruthie is the one who OK’d it.

Q: Ruthie again.

A: Yes. John just walked in here one day cold-calling me and asked what my biggest problem was. I said, like every fine jeweler, it’s threshold resistance. Everybody’s afraid to come in here because they think everything in here costs a hundred million dollars. Which it doesn’t. We have prices down to the one hundred dollar range.

So John said, “Let me work on it.” A month later, I’d forgotten all about him, and he came in and said he had some ideas for ads to run in The Star, like this one here (points to a framed ad). It says, “If you’re afraid to come in the store alone, bring a friend.” And it’s me holding this cute little dog. He made a whole bunch of ads like that, and they won a national award. A year later, he came back and said he wanted to put me on television.

Q: By that time, did you trust him enough to agree?

A: No. I said, “Forget it. I’m not a used-car salesman, and I’m not going to stick my puss on TV.”

Q: But you gave in.

A: Ruthie made me.

Q: What was the first commercial you did?

A: My bald head coming up from the bottom of the screen to the music of “Star Wars.” It was a huge success. Huge.

Q: How soon after those commercials began airing did you begin to be recognized in public?

A: Immediately. You can’t believe it. I can go into a restaurant, and a waitress will recognize me and tell me she loves the commercial I did with the hairpieces, and she’ll say she thinks she saw it last week. It’s been four years. That’s called good advertising.

Q: After living in Kansas City for more than half a century without being recognized, is it fun being a local celebrity now?

A: Yes. And the oddest people recognize me — not customers, but the guy cleaning the street, people from every walk of life come up and say, “You’re Mr. Tivol, aren’t you?”

Q: What do you usually say?

A: “Don’t call me Mr. Tivol. That was my father. Call me Harold.”

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